After High-Profile But Lackluster Tenure, Beers Considers Early Exit
NEW YORK--When Charlotte Beers returned to the agency business a year ago, she was trumpeted as a rainmaker whose access to
corporate boardrooms would translate into big business for J. Walter Thompson.
But after falling short of expectations, Beers is considering leaving before the end of her contract, which runs through the end of this year, sources said. In fact, it is believed that executives at JWT and parent
company WPP Group are currently negotiating an exit strategy that is acceptable to both parties.
Last March, Beers came out of semi-retirement to assume the role of worldwide chairman--a title previously held by worldwide CEO Chris Jones.
Her mission: Reel in new accounts, attract talent and act as an emissary for the oldest agency in advertising. At the time, she said, "I plan on being a pioneer once again" [Adweek, March 15, 1999]. By most measures, 1999 was a strong year for JWT. But sources said Beers' contribution to the rebound was negligible.
It appears that Beers, although respected in many corners and the source of mainstream press for JWT, has fallen short in particular on the new-business front, where she failed to play a role in any major win. Some sources suggested that she may decide to leave. "I think people are trying to figure out a graceful exit strategy," one executive said.
Another possibility: a less formal role, perhaps as a consultant or chairman emeritus, sources said.
A year after parting with high-profile accounts Sprint and Dell, JWT billings grew 20 percent in the U.S. last year, to about $4 billion, on the strength of new business from Kimberly-Clark ($120 million), Elizabeth Arden ($100 million) and Miller Genuine Draft ($60 million).
In addition, the shop launched ©JWT to realize branding opportunities in the entertainment industry and more than tripled the billings of Digital@JWT. The reel also improved, with the agency winning a Gold Lion at Cannes for "Slackers," a Generation X-inspired spot for Kellogg's Raisin Bran Crunch.
Ironically, some cited the agency's new-business wins in early 1999 (including Kimberly-Clark, Qwest and Ragœ) as evidence that JWT will not suffer should Beers leave. Others, however, said her presence has taken some ceremonial obligations away from Jones, allowing him to focus on more significant issues.
"I don't believe that their success over the short term is not connected to that," a source said.
Beers does deserve a measure of credit for the hiring of Mary Baglivo, former CEO of Euro RSCG Tatham in Chicago, who became chief marketing officer and a global business director (on Warner-Lambert), since she first introduced Jones to Baglivo several years ago, sources said. The CEO later considered Baglivo for the president's post in New York, before ultimately hiring Bob Jeffrey [Adweek, March 9, 1998].
Nevertheless, some question why WPP, which is known for running a tight ship, would keep a high-paid, part-time executive who, according to sources, spends more time in Flo-rida than in her office in New York.
"She's in and out. She's not omnipresent," one executive said.
Beers' limited highlights on the new-business front included securing a meeting with Delta Air Lines in August and offering advice on the agency's approach to Domino's
Pizza, a review that Deutsch won, sources said. She also helped get JWT into the pitch for home-furnishings site Ibelli.com, another review the shop did not win.
The press Beers has helped generate put JWT on a bigger stage, what with a six-page feature in Business Week last July ["Mad Ave: A Star Reborn"] and a fashion photo of Beers in the current
issue of Town & Country ["The Soft Suit"].
However, both seemed to overstate Beers' role. The Business Week piece, in particular, caused internal strife, since a full-page photograph, sidebars and a subhead ("But can Charlotte Beers bring back the glory days at J. Walter Thompson?") implied that she was running JWT and that she had a hand in bringing in new business that was on board before she arrived.
One source described the incident as an "unadulterated fiasco," while another said simply, "It was a disastrous article." Indeed, afterward, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell called a meeting among JWT executives to clear the air, sources said.
Publically, Beers, 64, has not shared her feelings about 1999 and her future with JWT. She did not return several calls left at her office over the past two weeks.
Even though Beers' contract is with WPP, Sorrell referred calls to JWT. Jones said only, "I value my friendship with Charlotte and the outstanding counsel she has provided me. I look forward to receiving the benefits in the future."
Some speculate that Beers would wind down her involvement rather than leave abruptly. "There's not going to be some kind of dramatic exit," predicted a source. "From now on, she'll do less and less."
Another source, citing Beers' varied interests, including talk of writing a book and appearances on Good Morning America, said: "My guess is that she'll decide she wants to do something else." K